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A Home Away From Home: St. Stephen the Witness Catholic Student Center

“No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re here.” – Fr. John Haugen

When students come to college, it can be difficult to find a place to call home. For some it is a dormitory, where they meet new friends and stay up all night watching Netflix. For others, it is a sorority or fraternity where they make lifelong friends in their sisters and brothers.

But for many, they find home in the church and places of worship. This is what St. Stephen the Witness Catholic Student center provides – a home away from home, for students and community members alike.

This year, 2016, marks the 25th anniversary of St. Stephen the Witness Catholic Student Center. Before the current building was constructed between 1990-1991, Catholic students were invited to be a part of the Catholic Student Association in the early 1900’s. Students would walk from the University of Northern Iowa’s campus to St. Patrick’s Parish in Cedar Falls. The group grew bigger and took the name St. Stephen the Witness Catholic Student Center in 1966. They gathered at a two-story house on the southeast corner of College Street and 23rd Street, where they could seat 150 people in the chapel area that was added in 1966. In 1977, a two-story addition was built onto the chapel area, and the original house was taken down. This building can still be seen at the corner of 23rd and College Streets, though it has changed a little since then (

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Fr. Robert Spahn (Chaplain from 1951-1956) “1952 – After Mass breakfast club” — Photo courtesy of

On March 12, 1990 the groundbreaking ceremony was held for the current student center, and construction of the building began at 1019 West 23rd Street. On April 7, 1991, a dedication ceremony was held, as parishioners who were assembled for mass at the old building processed down the sidewalk to the new chapel (

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Procession to the new chapel — Photo courtesy of

St. Stephen the Witness Catholic Student Center has since been a home away from home for many people, offering activities, worship opportunities, and more. The staff at St. Stephen work hard to provide this friendly and welcoming place for all who walk through the door.

“I have worn a lot of different hats,” Fr. Ken Glaser states, in regards to his work at St. Stephen.

He came in 2008 and served as chaplain for his first four years before becoming the director of campus ministry as well, which is his current role. His hope is to help lead students to Christ and that he can reach out to students who aren’t involved in campus ministry.

“When you go through seminary, you’re trained to be a priest,” Fr. Ken explains.

Because St. Stephen is a campus ministry, rather than a normal parish, he has had to learn how to adapt and connect with students and community members who attend mass. “It is a different lifestyle,” he says.

When asked what St. Stephen has done for him, Fr. Ken says that it is an awesome and humbling experience to walk with college students. Not only does he preside for mass, but he offers students the opportunity to come talk to him about whatever is going on in their lives. He explains that there is a great amount of trust and respect from students, simply because of the office of work he is in. He wants to help students find a community and support system at St. Stephen.

“Being here for 12 years, watching incoming freshman & graduating seniors, [my] hope and prayer [is] that St. Stephen’s can support them on the good days and the bad days,” Fr. Ken says.

And, he hopes that students can discover who God is for them, as each person’s experience is different.

One of the Catholic teachings is to serve those who are less fortunate. St. Stephen offers many opportunities for students to reach out and serve those around them, from serving meals at the Catholic Worker House to going to local nursing homes to spend time with the residents. Shannon Duffy, the campus minister at St. Stephen, along with student leaders, has worked to develop programs such as these. St. Stephen’s purpose is “Inspiring Disciples who Pray, Serve, and Belong.”

Shannon explains, “The idea is, we’re trying to inspire, and help people understand what a disciple looks like.”

Shannon came to St. Stephen in August 2011, after serving as a youth minister and director of religious education in Greene County for eight years. His work at St. Stephen involves social justice and service, as well as organizing retreats such as the Antioch retreat and the Busy Person retreat, both offered during the school year.

St. Stephen has helped Shannon in many ways, as he enjoys what he does in providing service opportunities and programs for the students.

He adds, “What gives me more joy and satisfaction has been talking with people, not just doing the activities…I’ve had to learn how to be compassionate [and] how to listen.”

St. Stephen, while helping Shannon, has enabled him to help others as well.

Music is a large part of the Catholic Church, and St. Stephen offers students and community members the opportunity to share their talents. Clare Hanson, director of music and Liturgy, works to provide various musical and liturgical opportunities. There is a choir, currently consisting of 14 people, and students are invited to canter or play instruments for Sunday masses and Primetime mass on Wednesday nights. People can also lector and serve as greeters and ushers as well.

Clare came to St. Stephen three years ago, in July of 2013, and it has changed her life.

“Coming here has been night and day,” says Clare. “Sounds kind of cliché but it’s been amazing. I love being here; it gives me life [and] it gives me joy.”

Not unlike Shannon’s and Fr. Ken’s goals for St. Stephen’s, Clare’s hope is that, “People see St. Stephen as a place they can go and walk through the door and not feel judged; [that they] feel welcome, and feel like they can pray and worship in whatever way they want to.”

St. Stephen has a noticeable presence, located right across the street from UNI’s campus. But what many people are likely unaware of is the work that goes on behind the scenes. Mary Beckey Kelly, the Development Coordinator, and Lisa Geisler, the office manager, work hard to keep St. Stephen running smoothly. Mary helps with fundraising, organizing and updating the database, and the mailing campaign, and Lisa manages office work including answering phones, sending out emails, and secretarial work. They play vital roles in St. Stephen’s success.

Mary and Lisa have very similar views in regards to what they hope St. Stephen offers to students.

“I hope…that the students [find] stability and a place where they’re not being judged,” Mary explains, “a place where they can grow in whatever way they need.”

“I hope, especially for the college students,” Lisa says, “that we can be a home away from home.”

She also hopes that students can grow in their faith life and can meet people who share a like-faith. She and Mary both feel that St. Stephen offers a supportive community where students can simply come and talk to people or to “just be here,” as Mary stated.

When asked why people choose to attend mass at St. Stephen, Lisa said that, “We are a young, vibrant faith community,” which draws people in from the community. People readily sing and participate in the Liturgy. It is also very convenient for students, being that it is so close to campus.

While the staff are welcoming and helpful, the building itself is also quite welcoming. In the entrance of the building there is a large, nicely lit gathering space, with the chapel to the right. Downstairs is another gathering space, with plenty of room for a ping pong table and other tables and chairs for meals, along with the kitchen and a couch room where students can come to work on homework, nap, and spend time with friends.

Fr. Ken, Shannon, Lisa, and Mary all, in various ways, hope that St. Stephen provides a home away from home for students, as well as opportunities to help the community. And, according to several students, St. Stephen does just that.

“[It]was the first place that felt like home,” Hannah Davis says. She explains that spending time there has helped her build relationships with friends and with God.

Corey Richards says, “It is a friendly community where you feel welcome,” and that St. Stephen, “helps you get involved if you want to help people who are less fortunate.”

Jonathon Mead likes how St. Stephen provides a welcoming community and he has made many close friends there. He also mentioned that St. Stephen has helped him become a better person.

“I like that it is a bunch of college students practicing their faith,” Abigail Goedken notes, “and they’re there because they want to be there.”

She explained that it is a safe place where she has a family of friends who are always willing to pray for her, and she has met a number of her closest friends at St. Stephen as well.

“Plus, there’s free lemonade and popcorn after Primetime mass,” Abigail adds.

Abigail Goedken, wearing a T-shirt from the Antioch retreat.

The following videos also offer students’ opinions of St. Stephen. Kellen Kessler explains how St. Stephen helped him to find friends and grow in his faith. Maria Ahrens talked about how St. Stephen provides a place for her to get away from the stress of college and that it has given her several leadership opportunities.

St. Stephen the Witness Catholic Student Center provides students with a place where they can come not only to worship but to make friends and find a home away from home. The staff works to provide a safe place for the students, and they have learned and grown through that process as well.  St. Stephen is a very special place.

“Our community is an eclectic mix of young and old, faculty and student, citizen and saint. It’s a great place to pray, serve, and belong.” – Fr. Ken Glaser

**Update: Fr. Ken Glaser will be moving in July, 2016 to St. Ludmila Parish in Cedar Rapids. The new chaplain at St. Stephen will be Fr. Nick March, who currently serves as priest for several parishes in Northeast Iowa.


Reporter’s Notebook:

I really enjoyed writing this piece. Initially I was nervous, because I do not have much experience with going out and interviewing people. But I found that I really enjoyed it and it helped me grow as a potential journalist.

The staff at St. Stephen’s are awesome, which I already knew, because I’ve attended mass and other programs since last year. But it was great to get to know them each a little bit better. I thought it was cool that they all had similar goals for St. Stephen’s, because that shows that they are a cohesive group. Mary told me that it really feels like a team, and I could see that very clearly just by being there and talking with each of them.

Overall, everything went pretty well. I was able to get in contact with Lisa easily and set up the interviews without much trouble, and each interview went smoothly. One regret is that I did not talk to Josh Winters, who is also a staff member, and it would have been cool to hear his opinions. I also wish that I had taken more pictures, including pictures of the staff members. In Maria’s video, I forgot to turn my phone so that the video was horizontal, but I did not want to interrupt her because she had such great things to say. One other regret is not approaching more students. Many did not want to be filmed, which is understandable, but I still should have talked to more people.

Something I could have looked into a little more is the small faith sharing groups that are offered, along with other programs for students. I’ve participated in two different small groups, so I have some background, but I could have asked people what their favorite activities are, and if they are in small groups, what they like about it. But now as I think about it, that could have been another article in itself.

The interview process was easier than I thought it would be, partly because the people I interviewed were very nice and easy to talk to. Originally I was planning on having them sit in the chapel, but I found that it was cool to interview them in their offices because it gave a sense of what their lives are like. I got a lot of information and was able to use just about all of it, which was awesome. I really liked getting to talk to each person and hear more about who they are and what they offer to St. Stephen’s, as well as how St. Stephen’s has impacted their lives.

My biggest hope is that I’ve done St. Stephen’s justice. I love going to mass there and have made great friends there as well. St. Stephen is truly a great community that is doing wonderful things. I’m very grateful that I was able to do this, and I hope that it was a good experience for the staff and students I talked to at St. Stephen’s as well.



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